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‘Don’t Look Up’: Hollywood’s primer on climate denial illustrates 5 myths that fuel rejection of science

DiCaprio and Lawrence look at cell phone in a still from the movie.
In ‘Don’t Look Up,’ scientists played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence watch with horror as people willfully ignore warnings of an impending disaster. Entertainment Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

Every disaster movie seems to open with a scientist being ignored. “Don’t Look Up” is no exception – in fact, people ignoring or flat out denying scientific evidence is the point.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play astronomers who make a literally Earth-shattering discovery and then try to persuade the president to take action to save humanity. It’s a satire that explores how individuals, scientists, the media and politicians respond when faced with scientific facts that are uncomfortable, threatening and inconvenient.

The movie is an allegory for climate change, showing how those with the power to do something about global warming willfully avoid taking action and how those with vested interests can mislead the public. But it also reflects science denial more broadly, including what the world has been seeing with COVID-19.

The most important difference between the film’s premise and humanity’s actual looming crisis is that while individuals may be powerless against a comet, everyone can act decisively to stop fuelling climate change.

Knowing the myths that feed science denial can help.

As research psychologists and the authors of “Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It”, we recognize these aspects of science denial all too well.

Myth #1: We can’t act unless the science is 100% certain

The first question President Orlean (Meryl Streep) asks the scientists after they explain that a comet is on a collision course with Earth is, “So how certain is this?” Learning that the certitude is 99.78%, the president’s chief of staff (Jonah Hill) responds with relief: “Oh great, so it’s not 100%!” Government scientist Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) replies, “Scientists never like to say 100%.”

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